It’s been a month since RHS Chelsea closed its famous floral gates for 2016, and nearly a month to go before its sister show begins at Hampton Court. Chelsea hype has now calmed but it’s far from a distant memory for 32 competitors who put their all into creating the finest floristry UK and Ireland has to offer. This year we followed one of 2014’s Silver medallists, Karen Massey from Dublin, along her second Chelsea journey as she scooped another medal in 2016.
“From the minute I knew I’d qualified it was all I could think about,” she told us. Exhibiting at RHS Chelsea is a dream come true for so many florists and one only achieved by a lucky handful each year, after competing in local heats organised by the BFA.
Karen’s shop, Fleurtatious, is just outside Dublin city centre, and with no full-time staff and a serious commitment to flowers, there’s only a select few reasons for her absence. Either something really, really bad has happened or she’s off to Chelsea!
Following the competition heats, Karen said, “I’m not the most patient person so waiting for the result nearly killed me!! Finally the brief came through and I was really excited. I liked the idea of a headdress... I just had to figure out how to make it!”
This year’s brief for Chelsea’s Florist and Young Florist of the Year competitions asked designers to create a headdress for a Brazilian carnival.
“I started researching carnivals and straight away knew I wanted the design to be big, bright and colourful. Originally I thought about an open peacock style, but after discovering restrictions to width and depth in the brief, I decided to design it tall with parts trailing down.”
“I didn’t want the headdress to look too solid, so I chose to incorporate clear acetate to give it movement, light and flow. I’m a quick decision maker so once I had the picture in my head, that was it. I just needed make it work and make sure the flowers lasted.”
Flower choice is crucial in competitive floristry, and that doesn’t just mean picking the prettiest stems. Like it or not, much of the show’s floristry entries involve a lot of cold glue. So whilst contestants have to work within strict guidelines and include a range of techniques, unless you’ve loads of water vials or innovative methods, flower choice has to include heads that will last without water.
“You can never really be sure what the judges are looking for”, explains Karen. “So I just focused on making sure mine was a design that I would be happy with.”
Karen in The Florist magazine offices with fellow Irish florist Jenny Murphy
Creating a Chelsea exhibit can be an expensive experience if you’re not savvy about sourcing; imagine costing-up a carnival headdress to sell to a customer.
Karen told us, “I was really lucky because growers very kindly sponsored me and sent some incredible flowers. I had a fantastic mixture of Vanda Orchids, Cymbidium Orchids, Oncidium Orchids, Craspedia, Gloriosa, Strelitzia, Scabiosa, Nerines, Hypericum, Senecio Rowleyanus, Ceropegia Woodii, succulents and the most amazing air plants from Corsa Plants.
“Air plants aren’t really something I’ve used a lot in the shop, but during a recent trip to Holland with Floral Fundamentals, I fell in love with them and I knew I had to have them in my design. A number of growers very kindly donated their wonderful products; Anco, Cymore Flavour, Winco Holland, Corsa Plants, and Crown Jewels were all so generous!”
“And Anco were great because they sent me a sample box of orchids in all sorts of different colours so that I could test that they’d work well together. Viaflor, my suppliers, were fantastic as not only did they sponsor the rest of the flowers and plants that I used, they also organised transport for all of the goodies the growers were sending me.”
And it’s not just about flower costs, as Karen adds, “Chrysal very kindly sponsored me, which helped fund the travelling. I was delighted because it is a great experience but very expensive, and their sponsorship is a real confidence boost too.”
As flowers are perishable products, competitive floristry usually means working to the bone on zero hours sleep and buckets of coffee, since so many of the materials can’t be placed in advance. But that’s not to say the whole thing is complete overnight.
Months ahead, florists decide on colours, flowers and plant material plus structure, which techniques to use and – in the case of a Brazilian headdress – sussing how various contraptions are going to stay put on the mannequin’s head.
“I worked on the headdress every night after work, and all day on Sundays, but things didn’t really go to plan. I knew what I wanted it to look like but it wasn’t doing what it was told!! So there was a lot of stopping and starting and in fact, I took the entire frame apart and remade it just before Chelsea,” Karen explained.
“It caused a LOT of stress but was totally worth it in the end. It felt like it took forever, and it completely consumed me. I was waking up in the middle of the night with thoughts about flowers and plants to include, so I was exhausted by the end of it.”
Sat in the back of the van on the road to Chelsea, late into the night
To save shipping a delicate floral headdress across the Irish Sea in the middle of the night, Karen needed somewhere near London to work before the show. The Florist magazine’s Hammersmith offices fit the bill and we were happy to oblige, so Karen transported her finished structure on the ferry and set up a workspace in London ready to add fresh flowers and perfect her piece.
Karen’s entourage included her fiancé and 2012 RHS Chelsea Florist of the Year winner Jenny Murphy. Jenny is based at her mum’s shop, Flowers by Moira in County Meath, Ireland, and jumped on board to assist Karen at the last minute, enjoying a trip to Chelsea after a four year gap since her last experience.
All twelve competitors staged their headdresses through the night
By the following evening Karen’s design was ready to go, so she stowed away in the back of her van to keep a tight hold on the mannequin during the drive to the showground. All twelve Florist of the Year competitors had from 9:45 pm until 1:45 am to stage their creations and add any final finishing touches. Chelsea is an eerie but magical place in the middle of the night, and at this point helpers weren’t allowed near competitors, so many were on coffee duties whilst waiting at the sidelines.
Karen, Di Marvell & Helena Pike adding the finishing touches
Behind the scenes at Chelsea Flower Show isn't all glitz and glam! Here's florist Jo Hornsby on coffee duties in the middle of the night, having to dish out everyone's sugar with a fork because there were no spoons to be found!
With wide eyes and tired fingers each designer left for a few hours of shut-eye before spending the following day at the show, enjoying the sights and waiting for the big announcement. Dennis van Wonderen, the BFA’s Events Co-ordinator, rounded everyone up along with the President of the RHS who awarded this year’s coveted Best in Show award to Di Marvell from Petals Florist in Margate.
Despite relentless work, competitors don’t regret the experience. Karen says, “The best bit is actually being able to see it!! Last time I competed, my sister got married on the Friday of the show so I had to fly home and back to London in the middle. Plus this time my partner was able to come along too, so it was great for him to see it and be there with me.”
Karen with her medal and the floristry judges
Karen is an ambassador for the newly re-launched Good Florist Guide! Fancy joining her? Find out more.
Caroline and Hannah from The Florist magazine, photographing Karen with her beautiful creation!